September 13, 2004

The Grinding of Dull Old Axes: CBS, General Westmoreland, and President George Bush

What's the fun of an unelected position and unscrutinized power if you can't use it every now and then to push history your way? No fun at all.

It's not news that Dan Rather, CBS News and 60 Minutes have trouble exercising reasonable news judgment. Small and medium-sized lies and conscious slanting of facts and stories are served up almost daily on the CBS network's news buffet. Every so often, though, when the institutional memory of CBS suffers a stroke, CBS cooks up a piping hot lasagna of a lie so big it occupies its own blooper reel.

The Bush Guard fiasco of the last week is only the latest super-sized order of lies served up with Dan Rather's standard Happy Meal. But we shouldn't be just blaming the hapless Texan. He's just following a long tradition at CBS, and it is not the one associated with Edward R. Murrow.

Looking back along the spotty history of CBS, Dan Rather and 60 Minutes, you can find other epics of dubious veracity now rendered even more dubious in the wake of the unfolding Rathergate Scandal. Seen in the light of history, Rathergate isn't a case of "mistakes were made" but an extension of a decades old dedication towards slanting the news in an attempt to influence elections and drive national policy. In short, things like Rathergate are not an anomalies, but policies written with a nudge and a wink in the upper echelons of the major media.

After all, what's the fun of an unelected position and unscrutinized power if you can't use it every now and then to push history your way? No fun at all. What's great about media positions of weight, from the point of view of institutions such as CBS and people like Dan Rather, is that you can diddle about with the Republic without the bother of being elected. You only need to be self-selected and internally protective. This is why the wagons circle so quickly. An autocratic duchy within a democracy that enjoys a Constitutional exemption from the elected government, doesn't take to attack easily, and, like autocratic powers everywhere, is not likely to admit error; even an error it knows to be true. Too much is at stake. Perhaps even, at the extreme, the exemption itself.

Three blasts from the CBS past are worth recalling at this juncture:
1) "The Selling of the Pentagon," 1971
2) "The Defense of the United States," 1981
3) "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception," 1982

Although all three efforts, two of which bore the heavy hand of Dan Rather, the third was the most memorable and most deeply embarrassing for CBS.

The Unanticipated Costs of "The Uncounted Enemy"

Although most will have forgotten the title "The Uncounted Enemy," many will recall the lawsuit brought by General William Westmoreland in response to CBS' methods that were used in that

production. Many will also recall the recantation, retraction, and apology the network was forced into in order to end a lawsuit that was obviously going very poorly for them.

An interesting article from that era which looks at all three episodes in CBS New's career is CBS News, General Westmoreland, and the Pathology of Information by Lt Col Evan H. Parrott, Jr., USAF. It was published in 1982 in The Air University Review,and written from a career military officer's point of view.

Parrott's observations are, deservedly, less than flattering, but the parallels to the CBS of today are fascinating. [Emphasis mine]

"OVER the past ten years or so, military viewers of television programs from CBS News have not been given much reason to believe that the network could report or document military matters with the degree of thoroughness and balance one might hope for from a national network. We all remember "The Selling of the Pentagon," that flawed, poorly edited 1971 documentary tried to substantiate a charge that the Department of Defense's public relations efforts were just that, designed to "sell" Pentagon weapon systems and projects to the public. Instead, and because it tended to focus on short, dramatic, manipulated quotes, it caused more criticism of itself than the target for which it was intended. Late in 1981, another CBS-TV News documentary, an ambitious and lengthy prime-time series called "The Defense of the United States," ran for five consecutive nights. It was called a "documentary epic" by some; many others (mostly outside the defense industry) were equally infatuated, terming it one of the best programs in TV news history.

The anchorman for the series was Dan Rather, who stated that he hoped the "Defense" series would "start the debate rolling in every town and city in America" about defense spending in general and the Reagan buildup in particular. Special antipathy was directed toward the nuclear aspects of defense. That this program caused the current debate over nuclear weapons is questionable. There is no question, however, that, very much like "The Selling of the Pentagon," it was awash in hyperbole and distortion, inadequately supported by a parade of so-called experts. "The Defense of the United States" series suffered from the same flaws that tend to plague numerous other news documentaries about the military: poor research, perceptual rigidity and analysis, unsupported statements by the narrator-reporter, simplistic and attention-grabbing statistics, and the headline approach to news. Although obviously expensive and slickly produced, the series came across to this viewer decidedly one-sided -- that is, against the defense buildup-- and intellectually narrow in its scope and explanation of the real issues facing the United States defense strategy these days.

.... "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception" and featuring Mike Wallace as the principal reporter was quite remarkable. Although it has become extremely controversial since it was shown in January 1982, it met the general conditions of what a documentary should be: it had rather detailed and thorough research, highly qualified experts on camera with many statements pro and con, and, on balance, quite a good approach to a very difficult topic

"A Preposterous Hoax"

Demerits across the board for Dan Rather's efforts but admiration for the structure and approach of Wallace's documentary. The content, however, along with how it was manipulated, was what was to undo CBS and Wallace.

.... this documentary’s central theme was that General William Westmoreland, for political reasons, withheld information from the political decision-makers in Washington. The information he allegedly withheld concerned new estimates of the strength of the Vietcong and North Vietnamese regulars, a strength that dramatically increased in the months just prior to the [Tet] attack. According to the report, mere acceptance of those estimates, which included a previously "uncounted enemy," probably would have prepared U.S. forces better for the offensive to come.

Almost immediately, there was an explosion of public comment pro and con. A few days after the broadcast, General Westmoreland called a news conference to denounce the documentary, describing the whole effort as "a preposterous hoax."....

It is likely that a mere Westmoreland news conference alone wouldn't have done anything to cause CBS to recant. Indeed, there was nothing at that time to cause them to even consider launching an "internal investigation" -- the sort of thing that has been asserted and then denied to be happening with Rathergate.

Alas for CBS, no internal investigation would be necessary since TV Guide decided to perform an "external investigation" of its own.

TV Guide did research of its own and, with the help of inside-CBS sources who leaked unedited transcripts, titled its report "Anatomy of a Smear: How CBS News Broke the Rules and ‘Got’ General Westmoreland." TV Guide claimed that CBS began the project already convinced a conspiracy had taken place and "turned a deaf ear toward evidence that suggested otherwise."

....It was evident even during the broadcast that CBS did not substantiate the allegation of conspiracy or deception by General Westmoreland or anyone else. That was a major weakness of the telecast and has since cast doubt on the credibility of the entire program. The network did, however, obtain the compelling statements of a group of mostly unfriendly retired military officers who were involved with the production of intelligence estimates at the time

An internal drive for a "gotcha;" "convinced a conspiracy had taken place," turning "a deaf ear toward evidence" that suggests something is not as assumed; unsubstantiated allegations, statements from people hostile to the subject... As we can see, the patterns in Rathergate seem to be historic and endemic to the institution. Either that or just 'deja vu all over again.'

Another, more detailed (and more biased) report on the Westmoreland debacle is found inVietnam and The Media, Part 4 which recounts the TV Guide expose. It goes into more detail on the CBS hit-piece [Again emphasis added]

....The article [Anatomy of a Smear -- TV Guide] showed that CBS had paid and then coached persons in what to say, had deliberately angered Westmoreland to make him appear guilty on film, had refused to include in the film corrections that he has requested,....
The author of this article continues, curiously in the 3rd person,
....In his exposé, Magruder wrote that ... Mike Wallace failed to tell his viewers that the entire thesis of the CBS film, based on a charge made by Sam Adams, a CIA analyst, had been thoroughly investigated and dismissed by the House Select Committee on Intelligence in 1975 and fully aired at the time in the press. Adams, a Harvard graduate sympathetic to the leftist views of antiwar leaders, and who testified on behalf of Daniel Ellsberg at his trial...."
All these things began to add up and caused Westmoreland, his career and reputation already trashed by CBS, to strike back by filing suit in late 1982 for "120 million dollars for libel, labeling the film 'vicious, false, and contemptible.' "

The television museum picks up the tale with The Uncounted Enemy:

The 90-minute program spawned a three-year ordeal for CBS, including disclosures by TV Guide that the report violated CBS News Standards; an internal investigation by Burton (Bud) Benjamin; and an unprecedented $120 million libel suit by retired U.S. Army General William C. Westmoreland.

Westmoreland sued producer George Crile III, correspondent Mike Wallace, and others for alleging that Westmoreland participated in a conspiracy to defraud the American public about progress in the Vietnam War. The suit was dropped, however, before reaching the jury, with CBS merely issuing a statement saying the network never meant to impugn the general's patriotism.

CBS subsequently lost its libel insurance. The controversy was also drawn into the debate over repeal of the financial interest and syndication rules. CBS chairman Tom Wyman twice admonished his news division in 1984 for hindering broadcast deregulation. In part as a result of the controversies, fewer CBS documentaries were produced than ever before.

The lawsuit generated an abundance of literature, as well as soul-searching among broadcast journalists regarding ethics, First Amendment protection, libel law, and the politicization of TV news. Unlike the case for a similar, but lesser, controversy over The Selling of the Pentagon, The Uncounted Enemy failed to uplift TV news, and instead, contributed to the documentary's decline.

And, as we can see today, more than twenty years later, the decline at CBS News has not been reversed.

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Posted by Vanderleun at September 13, 2004 9:13 AM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Wow. God bless the Blogosphere. This is awesome. Your post illustrates how we (bloggers and the Masses in general) can counter the sitcom, 15-minutes attention span of Mass Media. It's a great article and should make those of The Big Eye shake in their shoes.

Now the question is, did you post this while wearing pajamas?

Posted by: elgato at September 13, 2004 6:37 PM

New America for who Heinrich?

Posted by: mark_y1 at September 13, 2004 7:25 PM

New America for whom Heinrich?

Posted by: mark_y1 at September 13, 2004 7:26 PM

Viet Nam: unwinnable fiasco. Reported as it was. Iraq hopeless failure reported as it is. Iran-Contra: Gee I don't remember. Huh? "I'm told I was wrong," Ronald Reagan. See any parallels?

Posted by: Mark A. York at September 13, 2004 7:30 PM

At a time when Rather should have been trying to repair his reputation before retiring, he has instead disgraced himself and CBS. I have no sympathy for CBS itself, though. They had the opportunity to do the right thing and save themselves from further embarrassment by admitting error and apologizing. They have instead given the finger to the American public and deserve their fate as the National Enquirer of the networks. (Apologies to the National Enquirer.)

Posted by: mikem at September 13, 2004 7:33 PM

Ver nice analysis of a bunch of professional liars. CBS has a long history of propoganda, you forgot Tailwind. Its interesting to note the comments of individuals who didn't serve and probably were alive during Vietnam to describe the war as unwinable. Strangly Gen Giap said, "We were losing the war and it was the efforts of the antiwar elements in the US that encouraged us to continue the war after the failure of the 1968 offensive."

Posted by: Thomas J. Jackson at September 13, 2004 7:36 PM

On a much smaller scale, didn't 60 Minutes do a fact-deficient attack on the Bradley Fighting Vehicle a few years before Gulf War I?

And then there was that "sudden acceleration syndrome" smear job on Audi....

Posted by: pst314 at September 13, 2004 7:42 PM

The only 60 Minutes story I was ever personally in a position to fact check, their smear job aimed at Dungeons and Dragons, soured me on them forever. I feel somewhat vindicated.

Posted by: Jack of Spades at September 13, 2004 8:05 PM

"...their smear job aimed at Dungeons and Dragons..."

I'm attacking the darkness!

(sorry =)

Posted by: Ben at September 13, 2004 9:26 PM

Calling Iraq a "quagmire" and bogus comparisons to Vietnam do not excuse obvious hatchet jobs on the president during wartime. Nice try.

Posted by: pauly b. at September 13, 2004 9:28 PM

The ALAR fiasco showed that CBS had a few bad apples in its barrel.

Posted by: JTR at September 13, 2004 11:57 PM

Tailwind was a CNN smear job.

Posted by: CJ at September 14, 2004 12:10 AM

Don't for get what they did to Audi!

Posted by: Eric Pobirs at September 14, 2004 1:52 AM

Yo, Dan!

I've got a documentary for you. Its all REAL, authentic footage of REAL people, saying exactly what I wanted them to say, after I edited every inch of the film.

My true-to-life documentary is called
"Farenheit 9/11" and it documents how
wierd and ugly President Bush is.

Documentary-Film Director-Producer
All-American Guy,
Supporter of America's True Values

Posted by: Carridine at September 14, 2004 3:44 AM

I remember the one that ABC did on GM pick-ups. That was where they put explosives next to the gas tank to make sure they had a nice big fire.

Posted by: Mikey at September 14, 2004 4:28 AM

A trip down memory lane... One of those disgruntled former Army officers who signed on with CBS to attack Westmoreland was a retired colonel named Gaines Hawkins. Hawkins was a senior intelligence officer at MACV Headquarters in the late 1960s, and apparently a supporter of Sam Adams, the CIA analyst who spearheaded the coverup accusations about VC strength. After leaving Vietnam, Hawkins became chief of the "Special Research Division" (SRD), a small Army Intelligence unit attached to NSA and located in one of their annex buildings near BWI Airport. In 1983, long after Hawkins had retired, I was hired by SRD as a civilian intelligence analyst. In addition to its office space, SRD had a storage room filled with extra furniture, office supplies, and many shelves full of old files, all highly classified. Sometime in the late 1980s we were trying to clean out the room. My boss (a civilian, who had worked at SRD since about 1970), pointed to some bundled files on a shelf, including dozens of old SIGINT messages and several notebooks, which he identified as having belonged to Col. Gaines Hawkins, who had continued his own private the "War of Numbers" long after returning from Saigon. We both reflected on how desperately CBS would have wanted to see these records, and how they might have altered the outcome of that historic libel trial.

Posted by: Ralph Hitchens at September 14, 2004 6:24 AM

George Crile III still works at 60 Minutes, doesn't he? This libel suit also sent Mike Wallace into his first, of many, deep depressions. I guess he was one of the very few involved in that broadcast who had a conscience.

Posted by: Melissa at September 14, 2004 7:26 AM
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